Sunday, December 18 marks 157 years since the official announcement of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery in all of the states and territories under the jurisdiction of the United States of America. The date, however, is often overlooked because it comes in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations. Secondly, it is often far overshadowed by the celebration of Juneteenth and the publicity surrounding the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Finally, the ratification of the amendment occurred long after most considered slavery a dead issue which they had already been celebrating.
Having acknowledged as much, the writer is herein calling attention to December 18 as the third of that triumvirate of events ending slavery in America – the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the reading of General Order Number 3, and the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The Emancipation Proclamation was then and has since been questioned as to its legality since it was an executive order. There were opponents who asserted that as president, Abraham Lincoln did not have the authority to free the slaves. There have been others who indicate that the order could have been overturned by the Supreme Court or a later president. Then, there was the matter of the order not covering all of the states and territories. In one fell swoop, the Thirteenth Amendment dealt with all of those questions. General Order No. 3 issued by General Gordon Granger was even more narrow in scope. It was a military order, with the authority of the federal government behind it, addressed only to the enslaved people of Texas, nothing more and nothing less. It, too, was thus limited. The 13th Amendment had far exceeded that limitation.
The Thirteenth Amendment stated that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This made the ending of slavery apply to the Border States that had fought with the Union military, the areas of the Confederacy to which the Emancipation Proclamation had not applied, to those territories, current and future, that would be controlled by the U.S.A. as well as the areas enumerated in the Emancipation Proclamation and the state of Texas.
Despite the amendment being more comprehensive and air-tight, however, its ratification date has most often not been celebrated for the reasons referenced above. Hopefully, this article can help correct that situation.
Black people and all who realize the historical importance of the amendment should plan and carry out celebrations in their states and communities on that date. These celebrations should complement the celebrations of Black History Month, Juneteenth, and Emancipation Proclamation Day on January 1. There need to be parades, festivals, and programs celebrating the finality of the question of the legality of slavery in America.
At the same time, it should be kept in mind that because almost immediately after the amendment was ratified, many former Confederate States enacted vagrancy laws; educational programs also need to cover those types of attempts to skirt the amendment.
Many proponents who desired to resurrect slavery noted and attempted to utilize another part of the 13th Amendment to perpetuate slavery under another name. The phrase which they used makes an exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude by stating that, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted …” The Southern States used their vagrancy laws to arrest Black people who were without employment, assigning them to plantation owners, local industries, and even households wherein they worked for no wages. Since that scheme worked so well, local communities began expanding the application so that it covered any and every crime for which they could charge Black victims. Today’s phenomenon of the mass arrests of Black people grew out of that early effort and needs to be addressed as such through the freedom celebrations.
In short, the celebrations of December 18 should address every aspect of freedom from enslavement. They should definitely include celebrating the actions taken by the enslaved Africans themselves and the ways to deal with such continuing efforts as miseducation and unfair economic policies. There can never be too much attention brought to what it took to end slavery and what is required to perpetuate and expand it today.